By: Verne Maree
A century after the start of The Great War (1914-18), the world has been paying tribute to the lives lost in that era of carnage. Singapore itself seemed little touched by World War 1 – that is, until the Singapore Mutiny on Chinese New Year’s Day, 1915, when 850 Indian soldiers rose up and killed 47 British soldiers and local civilians.
They also set free a large number of German WW1 internees in Tanglin Barracks, enabling a band of German sailors, among them Captain Julius Lauterbach of SS Emden notoriety, to escape the island.
This month, exactly 100 years after these events took place, sees the publication of Edwin A. Brown OBE’s first-hand account of the mutiny, at which time he was an officer in the Volunteers. The original handwritten diary has been stored at the Imperial War Museum in London since it almost miraculously turned up in a Singapore bookstore; that was several years after the end of the WW2 Japanese occupation, during which its author was interned in Changi Prison.
Edwin A. Brown spent more than 40 years of his life in Singapore, from 1900 until the Japanese surrender. He, his wife Mary and their three children lived in the beautiful bungalow he built for them in Rochalie Drive in Tanglin; it was called Burnsall, after the village where Edwin and Mary spent their honeymoon. Edwin was a person of note in the community, and there’s a plaque in his name in St Andrew’s Cathedral.
Anyone with a historical bone in their body will find interest in this book, even apart from its strategic and political insights into an important military event. Providing a fascinating glimpse into the daily life of early 20th-century residents, it’s also a startling reminder of British imperialist attitudes from a time long past. By special permission of the publishers, Monsoon, here are some extracts from Singapore Mutiny: A colonial couple’s stirring account of combat and survival in the 1915 Singapore Mutiny by Edwin A. Brown and Mary Brown.
Extract #1: Introduction
Chinese New Year 1915 will long be remembered in the Straits Settlements. We left for home, had a tiffin, and went to our rooms for a lie-off, having arranged to go for a good walk when the heat of the day was over. We had our tea, and at 5pm got into the trap, which was to take us to a point from which we were going to walk home. We drove along Tanglin Road, into Stephens Road, and along Bukit Timah Road to the junction of Cluny Road, and there we dismissed the syce [stablehand]. We thought it a curious fact that no-one was playing tennis … and there was not a soul to be seen on the garrison golf course … You can imagine our horror when we found that the 5th Light Infantry had broken out in open mutiny and had been in Tanglin that afternoon, and were even then supposed to be marching on Singapore!
Extract #2: from the chapter “Escape” by Mary Brown
There was a strange stillness everywhere; I noticed that the houses were all in darkness and that there was not a soul about the roads. A rickshaw coolie kept close to me as I walked back, and as I began to feel a wee bit creepy, I got into the rickshaw and came home. I shudder to think what might have been our fate here in the house with the doors all wide open, and we absolutely unprotected, and all the houses round about closed up. Our house was the only one in Tanglin that had any lights burning.
On arriving at the house, Baba [Mary and Edwin’s daughter] was going to bed, so I heard her say her prayers and popped her into bed, and then had my bath. When I was partly dressed the telephone bell rang, and it was Edwin ringing me up from the Drill Hall, and this is what he said. ‘Molly, there is trouble among the natives, and you must get yourself, Baba, and Amah down to Raffles Hotel. Get away at once; I don’t know how you can manage, but ring up someone to lend you a car.’
So first of all I rang up Raffles Hotel and tried to engage a room for one night. Raffles replied that they were sorry, they were full up and couldn’t let me have a room, or even part of one. I replied that I was the wife of Capt Brown of the Singapore Volunteer Infantry and I was alone in Tanglin with my small child, and I considered that I was one of those who ought to be looked after before the people who had their husbands with them to help them. (I had no time or patience to mince matters, you see.)
We now set off into the deserted roads on our journey to Singapore. It was one of the blackest of black nights, with no moon. The car simply flew along, and it took us less time than usual to get to Singapore, speed limits were done away with altogether. We arrived at Raffles at 9.40pm. The Hotel was simply crowded with people, nearly all women and children, and it was here that we first heard the news that the 5th Light Infantry had mutinied.
Several people we knew had been shot, and there were 800 mutineers marching on the town. I knew that if this was so, Edwin would have gone out with the others to meet them. The suspense was simply terrible for one knew that at the most there could not be more than 200 men with any military training at all to go and meet them, and of these, more than half of them were nothing more than Volunteer recruits. There only seemed to be one thing possible, humanly speaking, and that was that our men would be wiped out, and then we did not like to think what our fate would be. We then heard an awful screaming going on in the Hotel. We were frightened but soon found out that it was the poor wife of one of the men who had been killed that afternoon. She had been with him in the motorcar at the time, and was now more or less demented.
Singapore Mutiny by Edwin A. Brown and Mary Brown (ISBN 9789814625050), with forewords by Professor Brian P. Farrell, Dr Nigel Barley and Celia Ferguson MBE (eldest granddaughter of Edwin and Mary Brown), is published by Monsoon Books and is available at leading bookstores in Singapore from 1 February 2015 ($19.80) and from ebook retailers worldwide.